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NEW YORK (Reuters) – A Muslim cleric and a second man were fatally shot by a lone gunman on Saturday while walking together following afternoon prayers at a mosque in the New York City borough of Queens, authorities said.
The gunman approached the pair from behind and shot both in the head at close range at about 1:50 p.m. EDT (1850 London time) on a blistering hot afternoon in the Ozone Park neighbourhood, police said in a statement, adding that no arrests had been made.
The motive for the shooting was not immediately known and no evidence has been uncovered that the two men were targeted because of their faith, said Tiffany Phillips, a spokeswoman for the New York City Police Department. Even so, police were not ruling out any possibility, she added.
The victims, identified as Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Tharam Uddin, 64, were both wearing religious garb at the time of shooting, police said.
The NYPD declined to describe the connection between the victims but the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Uddin was an “associate” of the imam.
“The perpetrator of these senseless killings must be swiftly apprehended and face the full force of the law,” Afaf Nasher, executive director of the Muslim advocacy group’s New York chapter, said in a statement.
The men were transported to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center and died “while life-saving procedures were being performed,” said Andrew Rubin, a hospital spokesman.
The suspect was described by police as having a medium complexion and dressed in shorts and dark polo shirt. He was seen by witnesses fleeing the scene with a gun in his hand, police said.
“We are currently conducting an extensive canvass of the area for video and additional witnesses,” Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner said in a statement.
Akonjee was described as a peaceful man who was beloved within Ozone Park’s large Muslim community.
“He would not hurt a fly,” his nephew Rahi Majid, 26, told the New York Daily News. “You would watch him come down the street and watch the peace he brings.”
Video footage posted on YouTube showed dozens of men gathered near the site of the shooting, with one of them telling the crowd that it appeared to be a hate crime, even as police said the motive was still unknown.
“We feel really insecure and unsafe in a moment like this,” Millat Uddin, an Ozone Park resident told CBS New York. “It’s really threatening to us, threatening to our future, threatening to our mobility in our neighbourhood, and we’re looking for the justice.”
(Reporting by Frank McGurty in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)